Ruthless People

(David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker, USA, 1986)


Ruthless People is a comedy that starts in hyperreal (i.e., Jerry LewisThe Ladies Man [1962]) territory. For a while you figure the only chuckles are going to come from the 101 Interior Design Jokes, the queer look-a-like quality of several cast members (particularly Bill Pullman as quasi-De Niro), and the unsubtle play-off between the disgusting viciousness of Danny De Vito/Bette Midler and the naïve dreaminess of Judge Reinhold/Helen Slater.


Agreeably cartoon-like, this low-level laugh-machine then gets plugged into a mildly symptomatic, curious thematic concerning our old friend capitalist intersubjectivity, of which the American mainstream cinema cannot help but speak these days (cf., all from 1986, 9 ½ Weeks, About Last Night, Nothing in Common): here’s another parable about the relation between commodities and pleasures, the twin, streamlined drives for sex and money, particularly centred on a practical (rather than ethical) question of what it is to be ruthless (which is never the same thing across the differential dynamics of time, place, situation, strategy).


Ruthless People, as written by Dale Launer and directed by the Flying High team of Abrahams, Zucker & Zucker, then turns out to be something qualitatively more than the sum of these bits and pieces: it reveals some truly expert comic plot mechanisms (a rare thing these days) that carry the film with energy and precision to its conclusion.


The plot starts, in fact not, where it seems to – with a man stepping into home with a chloroform-soaked hankie to kill his wife – but with the coincidental displacement of that scheme by a second: she has already been kidnapped. The film is in the first place about a series of plots that keep radiating outwards catastrophically but tying up coincidentally to aid, cancel or transform each other (the wonderful scenes of ransom money handings-over).


In the second place, the film is about the status of a plot’s displaced or stolen object: what if that object changes or transforms itself? This is the case not only Bette Midler (as Barbara the wife) – from fat to thin and from resistant stake to complicit partner; but also with the killer dog that falls in love with its prey.


In the third place, it is about the calculation of knowledge in comic narrative – knowledge here being always a (treacherous, faltering) matter of guesses, anticipations and assumptions, none of which pay-off the way they should, since they’re all wrong to begin with (as in the whole hilarious trajectory of the videotape blackmail tool).


Ruthless People is not a major film by any means – it has no aspirations to consciously address any theme, and it hurls around none of the complex, dynamic, semantic velocities of Ron Howard’s Gung Ho (aka Working Class Man, 1986) – but it offers a pleasant and clever auto-reflection on the ways and means of comic construction reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s lovely Family Plot (1976).


Oh, and it has two completely detachable scenes about selling hi-fi equipment, and these are the most delicious – and probably sociologically accurate – comic skits you’ll see in mid ‘80s Pop Cinema.

MORE Jerry Zucker: First Knight

© Adrian Martin October 1986

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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